Review: Deseret Sunday School Songs, a hymnal

By June 15, 2008

There is no date, though a bit of research reveals that this hymnal was published in 1909. In pencil, a shaky hand has written ?Kirtland Ward Sunday School, 1944′ inside the front cover, but there is no copyright page. It may simply be missing, for this book is worn. The binding is cracked, and broken in three places. An old, old piece of tape marks hymn number 41, ?Joseph Smith?s First Prayer,? and some long forgotten conductor has marked instructions for an arrangement of number 46, ?Love at Home.? Several pages are torn out, the edges of the cloth cover are frayed, and someone has taken a blue crayon to ?Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd.? There are two perfect circles drawn in pencil on the frontispiece – though it may be incorrect to call it that, because the page is blank. There is no title page, no First Presidency message or instructions for a chorister.

A stamp on the back indicates publication by the Deseret Sunday School Union, complete with a ?Holiness to the Lord? logo and the image of a beehive atop a pyramid of the standard works. Interestingly, the largest of the four books, the foundation of the pyramid, is the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Mormon is the third smallest and second from the top, immediately beneath the Bible. Perhaps this means nothing.

There is a first line index, but several pages are gone, leaving the apparatus useless for locating any hymn located alphabetically after number 266, ?Father of Life and Light.? However, the songs seem to be arranged by topic, similar to the current hymnal. There are 295; I’d estimate slightly fewer than half are still in use.

Turning the frontispiece takes us directly to hymn 1, ?Stars of Morning, Shout for Joy,? by the Mormon Thomas Durham. It?s a very Old Testament hymn, echoing the cry of the cherubim in Isaiah with the chorus ?Holy, Holy, Holy,? and the title?s reference to Job. This hymn (and the second, ?Beautiful Home,? a sentimental paen to heaven by the Protestant H.R. Palmer) are an interesting juxtaposition to the opening of the current hymnal, with the rousing Restoration songs ?The Shadows Flee? and, of course, ?The Spirit of God? (titled here ?The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning? and buried at number 104). Indeed, this collection owes a large debt to the contemporary popularity of evangelical Protestant gospel music. Sentimental songs like Palmer?s ?Master, the Tempest is Raging? (number 204) and “Precious Savior, Dear Redeemer,” (19) or Henry Lyte’s “Abide With Me” (103) sit alongside vigorous, enthusiastic Christian anthems like”The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (128) and the still-popular “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel” (178). These tunes – along with old Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley standards (“Sweet is the Work;” “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”) –  were being sung not only by the Mormons, but also by devoted crowds of revival-goers all over the country, led by such evangelical songmasters as Ira Sankey.

Indeed, this is not strictly a hymnal. Sankey’s music was met with upturned noses by many more conservative Protestant leaders mildly put out by the indecorous vigor and heart-on-the-sleeve sentiment of the gospel songs. The songs of this collection were intended primarily for use in the Sunday schools, which among early twentieth century Mormons and Protestants alike often featured abbreviated and slightly more casual services than the main Sunday meetings. But it was hard to argue with results. Many of the Sunday School gospel songs (such as those above) gained a devoted enough following to find their way into the 1950 edition of the hymnbook for worship. Is it surprising that evangelical music was (and are) so popular among the Mormons? Yes, and no. On the one hand, Deseret Sunday School Songs shows us how deep the Great Accomodation (to borrow Helen Whitney’s term) ran. On the other, it’s not as though this was a new thing; despite the efforts of Parley Pratt and W. W. Phelps, evangelical hymns like “Ye Simple Souls that Stray” and “Jesus, Thou All Redeeming Lord” (by John and Charles Wesley, respectively) were finding their way into LDS hymnbooks from the 1830s. This probably tells us something useful about the history of Mormon piety.

All this is not to say, however, that the cultural and religious stamps we might expect from a book published in Salt Lake City within a stone?s throw of polygamy are entirely buried beneath the fervency of evangelical America. Joseph Smith, for example, is all over these pages. His life is chronicled from number 234, ?One Hundred Years,? written by the prolific Evan Stephens to celebrate the centennial of Joseph?s birth (representative lyrics: ?One hundred years since, here as a mortal/One of the chosen of heav?n had his birth?) to number 8, ?The Unknown Grave,? by David Hyrum Smith, written, so a footnote explains, in ?reference to that of the Prophet, who, after his martyrdom, was buried secretly at midnight by a few of his friends, as his enemies were anxious to steal his body.? Representative lyrics: ?And there reposes the prophet just/the Lord was his guide and in Him was his trust/He restored the gospel, our souls to save/But now he lies low in an unknown grave.? ?Praise to the Man? of course is here (as is ?stain Illinois,? in its proper place in the second verse, I was delighted to note), but so are 260 ?Joseph the Blest? and number 232, simply ?Joseph Smith,? which spends the first verse praising Vermont, ?the birthplace of patriots? from where ?on Sharon?s verdant sod, there came to earth/In mortal birth, a Prophet of our God.? Many of these hymns are gone now, victims, perhaps, of a growing church’s natural desire to seem less the property of a charismatic founder, and more that of Christ.

The same sort of parochialism manifests in another motif, entirely typical of a Zion-building people. These hymns praise Utah. It is both ?Utah, the Star of the West? (number 202) and ?Utah, the Queen of the West? (number 150). It is our ?Beautiful Mountain Home,? (number 162) and ?Our Mountain Home So Dear? (number 139, by Emmeline Wells). And further, we are ?Proud? Yes, of Our Home in the Mountains? (number 200). Indeed, the hymns praising Utah outnumber those praising the United States, which gets ?The Star-Spangled Banner? and ?America,? but not much else – perhaps a residue of bitterness and ethnic nationalism remained barely a generation removed from the polygamy persecutions. Utah was ?where white-robed virtue e?er prevails,? (202) and even though ?the world may despise, but dearly we prize/Our beautiful mountain home.? (162) We are instructed in number 126 that ?Zion Stands With Hills Surrounded;” a lesson that even as late as 1909 Zion remained, perhaps, merely one more building erected, one more field plowed away.

And clearly, this is a hymnal of small town Utah, where Church institutions remained the locus of social and cultural life, and leaders more familiar than they are to us today. Presumably most users of this hymnbook would have some memory of Dr. Karl G. Maeser, to whom number 142, ?The Teacher?s Work is Done? is dedicated. And we would do well to remember which institution produced this hymnal. Hymns like number 36, ?Welcome to Our Union Meeting? and 31, ?A Sunday School Call,? urge the Saints to submit to ?our teacher?s kind rule? and celebrate ?our mission/To direct the youthful mind.? Number 112 bluntly instructs the Saints ?Break Not the Sabbath Day,? number 23 to ?Come, Rally in the Sunday School.? And number 42 describes this society perhaps the most colorfully, proclaiming ?We Are the Bees of Deseret/the busy, busy cheerful bees . . .Trying to fill our little hives/With every good that we can gather round.? This sort of unmistakable frontier Mormonism feels charmingly anachronistic in a twenty-first century international church.

There are a few more theological or cultural quirks scattered through the book. Somewhat startlingly, in number 74 ?When Jesus Shall Come in His Glory,? Joseph Townsend blithely combines somewhat esoteric Mormon theology with that of emerging Protestant fundamentalism. When Jesus shall come, Townsend explains, ?Then quickly I?ll be Translated? and join the saved, for ?The saints will arise, to meet in the skies/And welcome their King to his throne.? This is rapture theology, something I can?t remember ever hearing taught in my Mormon experience. Relatedly, no fewer than three hymns – number 25, ?O Lord, Accept our Jubilee,? number 96, ?The World?s Jubilee? (by none other than Eliza Snow, slightly more represented in this hymnal than in our own), and number 125, ?O Come the Jubilee,? use the term Jubilee in the traditional sense, to describe a time of special repentance, celebration, and forgiveness through God?s grace. This familiarity with the liturgical calendar is almost entirely absent today, and it?s slightly surprising to me that we?ve so thoroughly forgotten it. And, finally, my favorite anachronistic hymn, number 163, ?Don?t Kill the Birds? clearly reflects Lorenzo Snow?s interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. It?s hard to imagine the Saints of Utah today, steeped as much in the modern culture of the American West as in their own religion, singing ?Don?t shoot the little birds!/The Earth is God?s estate/And he provideth food for small as well as great.?

This is not quite the Mormonism I recognize. It?s the Mormonism of the Lion House and the This is the Place State Park in Utah, the Mormonism of Juanita Brooks and J. Golden Kimball, the Mormonism my great-grandparents? generation – parochial and slightly isolationist, rural and steeped in a frontier ethic. I wonder how long it will linger.

Adapted, edited, and lengthened from here.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Cultural History Material Culture


  1. nice. The last paragraph is quite perceptive.
    Mormons had Jubilees of their own periodically, including the famous one when JSJ succeeded at law in Illinois in getting free of the Boggs indictment. I doubt this tells us much about knowledge of a liturgical calendar.
    The Protestant hymns don’t tell me much about accommodation personally because they’d been present all along.

    As for the rapture, you may be a little anachronistic. From the earliest period they’d been anticipating translation as a kind of flight or conveyance and did expect that e.g. the lost city of Enoch would descend from heaven (perhaps on the landmass whose absence defines the Gulf of Mexico). There’s a reasonable amount of early language to suggest they anticipated some kind of rising up to meet the descending hosts of heaven before the P-fundies ever got ahold of those self-absorbed and self-righteous bumper stickers that announce the lack of a designated driver during the Parousia.

    And you do a wonderful job of eliding the complexity of the hymn by JSJ’s posthumous son, the troubled poet of the Reorganization who had come with JSIII to proselytize their Utah cousins before being institutionalized for what sounds like psychotic depression.

    Great fun. Keep these coming.

    Comment by smb — June 15, 2008 @ 8:01 am

  2. sam –

    But of course, the very existence of a Jubilee signals the sense of liturgical time; these are sacred celebration days that alter and complicate the old Protestant rhythm of a week that culminates in the sacred Lord’s Day. Back before the three hour block, I think Mormons had some sense of this, perhaps more than Protestants of the day. I’d be interested to know when the last Jubilee was celebrated.

    I’d be interested in seeing some of this proto-rapture language – it’s floating around in Protestantism by the mid-nineteenth century (among, maybe, the Irving-ites as well as of in the work of Darby), but doesn’t really hit the big time until right around the publication of this hymnal (and the composition of the song), with the Scofield Bible and Blackstone’s Jesus is Coming, when it starts getting a lot of press. Townsend’s a child of that age; I wonder how possible it is to suss out these various impulses.

    The Protestant hymns don?t tell me much about accommodation personally because they?d been present all along.

    Certainly, as I acknowledge, it’s possible to go both ways. But many of these hymns are notable because they’re not actually hymns; they’re gospel songs, lacking the pedigree of Isaac Watts or other classics, particular creations that serve late nineteenth century urban revivalism. So it’s possible to argue both continuity and adaptation here.

    Comment by matt b — June 15, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  3. Matt: Is this hymnal in the Archives? I’ve got to check out this Deseret Sunday School stamp!

    great post by the way. I’d like to get together an entire collection of these some day and switch out all the current green ones from my ward building–switch things up a little.

    Comment by stan — June 15, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  4. Stan – I inherited the copy I describe here. They’re actually not that uncommon – you can probably get one on ebay for ten bucks or so.

    Comment by matt b. — June 15, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  5. Very nice review. Thanks Matt B.

    The hymnbook is available in its (almost) entirety at googlebooks. You can get the whole thing at a cost of however long it takes you to download 11.8M. It was scanned from a copy at the Harvard Library.

    Part of the index is missing so I paged through the entire thing looking for (and never finding) “The Morning Breaks,” which I wanted as a graphic for a story that referred to the song. I thought that was a ubiquitous Mormon hymn? Could someone who has an actual copy look at the index and tell me if the song is in there and I just missed it, perhaps as “The Shadows Flee” as you refer to it?

    I did see “Don’t Kill the Little Birds” and actually quoted a large chunk of it recently on Mormon Mommy Wars during the interminable discussion about the killer sparrows. What is the fascination with that song? [It seems to be based on a 19th century English poem or song.]

    And I want to teach my kids the “busy, busy cheerful bees” song. (Eeew.)

    Comment by Researcher — June 15, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  6. I can’t recall ever hearing any teaching on the rapture in church either, but your discussion of it in hymns did remind me of a line from Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise (#41 in our current hymnal). There it states that God is preparing his people “To meet the Lord and Enoch’s band Triumphant in the air.” Does that count as rapture theology? It’s by Edward Partridge and was included in the first LDS hymnbook.

    Comment by austin s — June 15, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

  7. Researcher – alas, my copy is missing part of the index; however, I’ve just flipped through the book, and no sign of the hymn, under either title. That is somewhat surprising.

    Austin – good catch. You may be on to something here.

    Comment by matt b. — June 15, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

  8. Thanks for looking!

    Comment by Researcher — June 15, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  9. I was thinking that as the LDS Gospel continues to increase in modern, relevant times, I hope that music will indeed change in our hymnals and we see more flavors integrated into the hymnal. Is it possible throughout the Church,we can open up to new songs, new styles of praise thru music?

    Comment by MLBrown — June 15, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  10. Fascinating stuff, matt. A paper that I’ve been in interested in seeing written for some time now is an exploration of a shared hymnal theology or culture between Mormons and Protestants, especially in light of the feminization of Jesus during the nineteenth century. How have hymns such as Abide with Me, which portray Jesus as a friend and a comforter, shaped how Mormons and Protestants imagine Jesus?

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2008 @ 12:05 am

  11. My copy of “Deseret Sundsy School Songs” still has the title page and complete index, and no, “The Morning Breaks” is not included. It was, however, in the so-called Manchester Hymnal (published until 1912) and the Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody, which were both widely used until “Latter-day Saint Hymns” was published in 1927. “Latter-day Saint Hymns” was intended to be used for Sacrament Meeting, while “Deseret Sunday School Songs” was intended to be used for, of course, Sunday School. So, even though it wasn’t in “Deseret Sunday School Songs”, “The Morning Breaks” was in the other hymn books that Mormons 100 years ago would have had.

    As a side note, “The Morning Breaks” was #1 in both the Manchester Hymnal and “Latter-day Saint Hymns.” Since the 1948 hymnal was roughly alphabetical it was moved back farther, but was returned to position #1 in the 1985 book since it was #1 for so many years in the earlier hymnals.

    Comment by PaulS — June 16, 2008 @ 1:39 am

  12. The Partridge hymn is somewhat typical.
    Hicks has some good stuff about borrowings and cross-pollination. I love the Mormon God’s the God for Me stuff which he covers well.

    Comment by smb — June 16, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  13. I love how Rock a bye baby is in there. The one I find fascinating is “America”, Now in our hymnal as “My country tis of thee”. I like the four extra verses of “America”. Not sure how well they would fare in todays church though.

    Comment by Ian M. Cook — June 16, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  14. Interesting (and fun) post, Matt. At a recent Sunday dinner with my 88 year old grandmother, she reminisced about some of these older hymns/songs we no longer sing (or sing with modified lyrics).

    Regarding Townsend: perhaps he picked up some rapture theology during his stint as a missionary in the Southern States.

    Comment by Christopher — June 16, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

  15. I was thinking that I had remembered some fairly early rapturesque strains. Did a quick search.

    EMS 1 (November 1832):43:

    The oceans have to roll back into one place; the valleys have to be exalted; the mountains have to flow down at his presence, the sun has to be darkened, and the moon turned into blood, and stars have to fall, then behold, he will come to reign on the earth with power and great glory, and all the holy angels with him; yea, with the church of the first born, even Zion which was received up to the bosom of the Father, in the days of Enoch, before the flood; that the righteous that died in the hope of a glorious resurrection, may arise and meet the Lord in the air, and live again, in the flesh, on the earth.

    Vogel in his Seekers (pg. 195) states:

    In March 1832, the new Mormon settlement in Missouri was referred to in a revelation symbolically as “the city of Enoch” and Joseph Smith was called “Enoch” (D&C 78:1, 4). The revelation promised that the church would be lifted up “in a cloud” to meet Jesus (vv. 20-21). Those who did not gather to Zion to be caught up at Jesus’ return would be destroyed (D&C 76:99-106; 88:92-98). Thus Paul’s words to the Thessalonians–that those alive at Christ’s return “shall be caught up . . . in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes. 4:17)–applied to the church as a group rather than to individuals. In May 1833, The Evening and the Morning Star published the words to the Mormon hymn “Songs of Zion,” which elaborated on the expected levitation of the church: “Behold the church, it soars on high,/ To meet the saints amid the sky;/ To hail the King in clouds of fire:/ And strike and tune th’ immortal lyre.

    Parley Pratt had some sermonizing on the topic circa 1840 as well (The Essential Parley P. Pratt, 59-60 and 62-63)

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 16, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  16. sam, stape – That’s actually fascinating; I had forgotten about D&C 78. I wonder to what degree the Enoch stuff in the Pearl of Great Price brought the idea to the forefront of the Mormon mind. 1 Thes 4:17 is, of course, the evangelical rapture prooftext; it appears we’ve added more of our own. I wonder why we don’t really seem to talk about it much anymore.

    ML – That, of course, is the question. Drums, anyone?

    Dave – Deep question. It seems to me that Mormons have been fonder of the more vigorous gospel songs, like Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel, than the really sentimental Jesus ones. Perhaps this gets to our works theology.

    Ian – Indeed.

    Christopher – A friend of mine has vivid memories of hearing Ezra Taft Benson sing ‘Mormon Boy’ at an event in the late 1980s.

    Comment by matt b — June 16, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

  17. so, I couldn’t help but think of two things when reading this.

    1. The song in the Spanish hymnal until…well…maybe as late as the 1980s called “Brush Your Teeth.” The lyrics detail how the devil will try to tell you that you don’t need to brush your teeth and then in the second verse the little “microbes” maliciously dance and sing in your mouth because you didn’t choose the right.

    Best. Day. Of. Spanish. Class. Ever.

    2. Check this baby out from Reddick Newton Allred’s Hawaiian Mission journal:

    Oh My Mother

    1 O my Mother thou that dwellest
    In thy Mansions upon High,
    Oft me thinks I still remember
    When you bade your child goodbye,
    How you clasped me to thy bosom,
    Bade me a true son to be,
    E’er I left my fathers Mansion,
    To dwell in Mortality.

    2. How you gave me words of councel,
    To guide aright my straying feet,
    How you taught by true example,
    All of Fathers Laws to keep.
    While I strive in this probation,
    How to learn the gospel truth.
    May I merit thine approvel,
    As I did in early youth.

    3. Tis recorded in thy journal
    How you stood by Fathers side
    When by powers that are eternal
    Thou wast sealed His Godess Bride
    How by love and truth and virtue,
    E’en in time thou dids’t become,
    Through thy high exalted station,
    Mother of the souls of men.

    4 When of evil I’ve repented,
    And my work on earth is done,
    Kindest Father–loving Mother,
    Pray, forgive thine earing [sic; erring?] son
    When my pilgrimage is ended
    And the victors wreath is won
    Father–Mother–to thy bosm
    Wilt thou welcome home thy son

    Comment by Heidi — June 16, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

  18. “Brush Your Teeth” must be the Spanish version of “Tooth Bugs.” There was quite a discussion of that song on Times and Seasons a couple of years ago which should be findable in their archives.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 16, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

  19. Whoa, Heidi still blogs here?

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  20. 17, “Oh My Mother”: Wow! very interesting.

    Comment by Edje — June 16, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  21. I did some browsing through the googlebooks reproduction. Here are my observations:

    First, check out hymns 62 and 63. Whoever did the copying immortalized his/her fingers. Once they got to 69, they realized the error and repeated 62-69 with undamaged versions.

    Hymn 22 is Flag of the Free, set to Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin. But later, the Pilgrim’s chorus is not from Wagner’s Tannhauser, but from Verdi’s I Lombardi.

    Of the 295 hymns, 106 are basically unchanged in our current book. An additional five are in the current primary book.

    Two hymns appear both with the music we are familiar with, and with other music: O My Father, 83 and 181 (set to Haydn’s Austrian Hymn, which in our book accompanies Glorious Things… which appears here with a different melody, 119); and Earth with her Ten Thousand Flowers, 75 and 90.

    Twelve additional texts in our current book (90, 119, 135, 155, 181, 191, 223, 233, 252, 254, 283, and 292) appear here with different music. In an interesting quirk, the music to 155 appears in hymn 160 in our book while the text is on the facing page (162).

    The melody for There is a green hill (252) is better known as “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” The melody for I stand all amazed (254) is the same, but has been moved to the tenor range.

    Come Thou Fount also appears (216) with a non-familiar melody. Another hymn unjustly excluded from the 1985 book, Take Courage Saints, appears here (280), not with the beautiful Frank Asper tune (composed after 1909, after all) but set to one of Mendelssohn’s most celebrated Song without words — “Consolation”, Op. 30, #3.

    Check out the crazy round on p. 235, as well as the better known Frere Jacques on 109 (Hark the pretty birds are singing). There are a lot of funny nature songs, celebrating Arbor Day, the seasons, etc.

    Two other jubilee songs you didn’t mention are found on 171 and 267.

    Hymn 237 seems to be almost in the style of Anglican Chant.

    Finally, for the most sentimental of them all, check out 184, “Oh, I had such a Pretty Dream, Mamma.”

    Comment by Bill — June 16, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  22. Bill – thanks for your informed observations; you’ve read perhaps more closely than I here.

    Hi, Heidi!

    Comment by matt b — June 16, 2008 @ 8:11 pm

  23. okay okay, I get it. I know.

    Forgive me, guys (and gals), it’s been a busy past 2 months in the life of Heidi

    Comment by Heidi — June 17, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  24. I have 2 1/2 copies of “Deseret Sunday School Songs”, but it sounds nothing like what you are describing. It was copyrighted in 1909 by Joseph F. Smith, and published by Deseret Book Company. It is 32 pages of the songs we sing today. Anyone know anything about these books?

    Comment by Sue — August 15, 2009 @ 1:57 am

  25. Sue,

    Your copy is a “selections” version, with 32 hymns as you stated, and was bound in paper wraps. I believe this version was published after 1909, since the Deseret Book Company didn’t exist in that name until 1920. The original 1909 version contained 295 hymns, and is found in either cloth or black leather. I have complete copies of both if anyone has any questions. Thanks!

    Comment by Shane Chism — August 18, 2009 @ 10:39 am

  26. Shane, thank you very much for that information.

    Comment by Jared T. — August 18, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  27. I am trying to find a copy of the song, “I had such a pretty dream, momma.” Does anyone have the words and the music? thank you so much.

    Comment by verda jensen — March 20, 2010 @ 7:05 pm


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